Although stress can cause physical and mental health symptoms, it isn’t a medical condition. Stress is the body’s natural response to feeling under pressure and is a normal part of everyday life.  Stress is often considered to be a negative feeling; however, its effects can help you deal with pressured situations by making you feel more motivated or even excited by a challenge. The ways that people choose to reduce or manage their stress will vary, often depending on the cause of the stress that they are feeling.

What is stress?

When we feel under pressure, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline. These are the hormones that support our ‘fight or flight’ response. While this hormonal boost can be helpful in dealing with a short-term situation, producing high levels of cortisol and adrenaline over longer periods of time could affect your long-term health. Understanding what is causing your stress can help you better manage its effects.

What are the main types of stress?

Stress can be caused by difficult or challenging situations in either our work or personal lives. Issues that cause stress can be temporary, or it could be that an area of our life, for example unhappiness at work, can cause ongoing problems.  Situations that cause stress typically include those where we feel we are not in control of what is happening or the potential outcomes, or when we feel under such pressure that we can’t cope with all the demands being made. Sometimes we may have a general feeling of stress but not be able to pinpoint the exact cause. This may be because we feel under pressure in a number of ways. For example, money worries may, in turn, affect our relationships, both of which have a negative effect on our wellbeing.

How many people have stress?

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. However, some people learn to manage stress and perhaps draw on its positive effects better than others. The causes and effects of stress differ between individuals, as we all have different life experiences and support networks that help us deal with pressure in various ways. Around half of European workers consider stress to be common in their workplace, and it contributes to around half of all lost working days.(1)

Symptoms

Stress can cause many different symptoms. It might affect both your physical and mental health, as well as how you behave. Some of the symptoms can have knock-on effects. For example, if stress causes you problems with your digestion, this may affect your diet in turn, and your overall physical health – which may then become an additional source of stress.

Symptoms

It’s important to remember that everyone experiences autism differently. Just like anyone else, autistic people have their own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress can cause physical, mental, and behavioural symptoms.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Fast and shallow breathing
  • A fast heartbeat, chest pain, or increased blood pressure
  • Headaches, dizziness or sore eyes
  • Feeling tense, biting your nails, picking at your skin, or grinding your teeth
  • Problems with digestion and stomach pain (gastrointestinal disturbance)
  • Problems with menstruation
  • Sexual problems including losing interest in sex

Mental symptoms can include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed, tired, or tearful
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Being unable to switch off
  • Feeling down or uninterested in daily life and everyday activities
  • Worrying and feeling anxious
  • Forgetfulness

Changes in behaviour can include:

  • Being irritable, impatient, and snappy with other people
  • Problems sleeping
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Drinking or smoking more than usual
  • Avoiding family and friends, social activities, or situations that feel challenging
  • Feeling lonely or unable to enjoy yourself

What are the stages of stress?

While most stress is a normal part of everyday life with no long-term effects, ongoing stress can cause knock-on effects and be linked to mental health issues. 

People suffering from ongoing or frequent high levels of stress that they are unable to manage effectively may go on to develop a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression.

The pressure of managing mental health problems may, conversely, also become a cause of stress.

The effects of stress on individuals will vary depending on their ability to manage them, which can in turn be affected by factors such as their level of emotional resilience, their lived experience of dealing with challenging situations, the support network of family and friends around them, and how well other areas of their life are going at the time.

What are the early signs of stress?

While you may be aware that you are feeling under pressure mentally, the first real signs that stress is having an effect on your wellbeing are often physical symptoms, such as being tired but having problems sleeping, or experiencing headaches or digestive issues.

Causes and risk factors

The causes and risk factors for stress vary with each individual. Stress itself may lead to further physical or mental health problems.

What causes stress?

Stress is normally triggered by situations within your everyday life that place you under pressure. These can involve negative pressure such as problems at work, or the natural challenges felt when dealing with life changes such as a wedding, a new baby, or retirement. Typical causes of stress can include:

  • Problems at work, losing your job, or long-term unemployment
  • Exams and deadlines
  • Illness, injury, and long-term health problems
  • The loss of a loved one
  • Feeling you don’t have control over a situation
  • Finding your responsibilities overwhelming
  • Times of uncertainty
  • Getting divorced, dealing with family problems or difficult relationships
  • Financial problems, debt and an unstable living environment, including poor living conditions

Situations that may generally be considered as happy events but that can still cause stress include:

  • Starting a new job
  • Buying a house or moving home
  • Starting a new relationship or getting married
  • Becoming a parent
  • Retiring from work

Stress doesn’t have to be caused by just one big issue; it can also be the result of a number of smaller worries that build up over time.

Is stress hereditary?

Stress is not hereditary. However, your ability to deal with stress and its effects may be affected by behaviour and techniques you learned at a young age.

Who might experience stress?

Being under pressure is a normal part of life and everyone will feel stressed at some point. The stress you feel from being under pressure can be a positive force, helping you to face up to challenges and giving you the motivation to deal effectively with difficult situations. However, it can also have a negative effect, depending on how it is managed.

How long can you live with stress?

Feelings of stress are usually a result of everyday events that are temporary and will change over time. This kind of stress is a normal part of life. However, long-term stress that isn’t managed well can lead to health problems and wellbeing choices that could impact on your life expectancy.

With ongoing stress, the temporary symptoms associated with stress can develop into chronic health issues affecting the immune and digestive systems, and cause problems with your heart, sleep, and reproductive health.

Over time, continued stress may also lead to mental disorders such as depression or anxiety. These can be exacerbated by behavioural changes such as increased drinking or smoking.

Treatment and medication

There is no specific treatment or medication for stress because it isn’t a medical condition in itself. However, there is support available to reduce its effects and help manage the possible symptoms.

How is stress treated?

If you are struggling to cope, or the symptoms of your stress or anxiety won’t go away, you should speak to your doctor or other health professional, as there are treatments available that could help. These include talking therapies, medication, mindfulness, ecotherapy, and complementary therapies.

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Medication

There are various medications available which can help to reduce or manage some of the effects of stress.

Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants for depression or anxiety or medication to help you sleep or to manage physical symptoms such as digestive problems or high blood pressure.

However, your doctor may also want you to first try ways to reduce the effects of stress which don’t involve medication, such as talking therapies.

Therapy and intervention

Talking therapies are designed to support people with mental and emotional problems including stress. If you are having difficulty managing your stress, you can discuss your problems with your doctor first, and they will be able to advise the best way to start. Talking therapies can include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): This can help you to understand what triggers your feelings of stress and to come up with strategies to avoid or manage it
  • Counselling: Talking in confidence with a counsellor will help you identify and address any issues you are dealing with in your everyday life
  • Mindfulness-based therapy: This can help you be more aware of your thoughts and feelings and understand yourself better

  • You may also be able to access ecotherapy, which is centred around spending time outdoors amongst nature. This could be through exercise classes held in the open or taking part in a gardening or conservation project.

    Complementary therapies such as yoga, aromatherapy, massage, and acupuncture could also help you better manage the effects of stress.

    Diet

    Research shows that there is an important link between our brain and our gut and the beneficial microorganisms that live inside our digestive system (known as ‘the microbiota gut–brain axis’), which may affect the way we manage periods of stress.

    Some foods are thought to help with the management of stress by reducing the body’s levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. It’s also important to maintain a healthy balanced diet to support your overall physical health and manage your blood pressure and heart health.

    Foods that are thought to help reduce stress include:

  • Wholegrain options – for example, pasta and bread
  • Nutrient-rich carbohydrate vegetable options such as sweet potatoes
  • Fruit and vegetables high in vitamin C, such as oranges and artichokes
  • Fruit and vegetables with high levels of magnesium, including avocados, broccoli, and spinach
  • Oily fish such as salmon, which are high in omega-3 fats and vitamin D
  • Fermented foods such as kimchi or other foods which support the beneficial bacteria living in the gut and so support digestive health
  • Food high in B vitamins, such as red meat and liver
  • Some herbal drinks such as chamomile tea, which are thought to help reduce stress and improve relaxation and sleep
  • Exercices

    Physical activity is a great way to improve both your physical and mental wellbeing, help you manage the effects of stress and boost your mood.

    Increasing your physical activity doesn’t mean you have to join a gym, sign up to aerobics classes or take up organised sports – you can do it in your own way.

    Being active for at least 30 minutes a day can improve your sense of wellbeing and self-esteem. To get more active, you could look for walking groups or other free activities in your area or find out about any classes such as dancing, yoga, or swimming that you might enjoy.

    If you haven’t been active for a while and it all feels a bit daunting, you could start by increasing what you do at home – going up and down stairs more often, dancing to music on the radio or taking up gardening. If you have a disability or a long-term health condition you should ask your doctor about sensible and safe ways you can do more exercise.

    By making regular activity part of your day-to-day life rather than thinking of it as ‘exercise’ that you need to do, you can build good habits for life. You could also consider additional ways to improve your wellbeing such as meditation and breathing exercises.

    Prevention

    While some stress is inevitable in everyday life, it is possible to reduce and manage its effects. By identifying what causes your stress, you may be able to avoid it in some cases or develop the emotional resilience to cope with stress better. By recognising the symptoms you will also be able to reduce or better manage them. A review of evidence conducted by the New Economics Foundation suggests there are five steps you can take to improve your mental health and wellbeing(2):
    1. Connect with other people
    Try to keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help and spend time with your family, for example eating dinner together. Make time for a social life – for example, arrange a day out with friends or have lunch with a colleague. Find a volunteering role that gets you out and about.
    • Be physically active
    Regular exercise will support your physical and mental health. Try to introduce regular activity into your daily life in ways that you enjoy. Remember that you don’t have to take part in organised exercise or join a gym – get active in the ways you enjoy and at a level you’re comfortable with. Discuss your ideas with your doctor if you’re unsure about what level of activity will be safe for you, for example, if you have a long-term health condition.
    • Learn new skills
    Learning something new can improve your mental wellbeing, self-esteem, and self-confidence. Consider joining a local college course where you can share the experience and meet new people. If you don’t fancy joining a class, try something challenging at home such as DIY or cooking. And why not ask about any learning opportunities at work?
    • Give to others
    Acts of giving and kindness can help improve your mental wellbeing by creating positive feelings, giving you a feeling of purpose and helping you connect with other people. Support others by asking friends, family, or colleagues how they are and really listening to their answer. You can also volunteer in your community or spend time with people who need support or company.
    • Pay attention to the present moment (mindfulness)
    Pay more attention to the present moment, as this can improve your mental wellbeing. This includes your thoughts and feelings, your body, and the world around you. Mindfulness can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges. Ask your doctor or other health professional about where you can get support with mindfulness.

    Scientific studies

    Much research into stress focuses on ways that people can effectively manage its symptoms. For example, research has been carried out into how music can lead to feelings of pleasure(3) and its effects on stress within couples(4) and recovery from stressful situations(5).

    A paper in the journal Experimental and Molecular Medicine also considers the effect of stress on release of the hormone dopamine and how it helps us select the best way to cope with stressful situations.(6)

    The US publication Psychology Today(7) has highlighted research on strategies for stress management. The methods covered include reframing our stressors in a less negative way, improving our planning, learning to relax, affirming our values and using our strengths, being more forgiving, practising mindfulness, and expressing gratitude.

    Researchers looking at the gut–brain axis are also investigating the importance of the human microbiota (the ‘good’ bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our digestive system). The gut microbiota has been implicated in a variety of stress-related conditions, including anxiety, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome, although additional research in humans is needed to reveal the relative impact and causal contribution of the microbiota to stress-related disorders(8).

    Referenced sources

    1. Psychosocial risks and stress at work. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) website. Accessed February 2021. https://osha.europa.eu/en/themes/psychosocial-risks-and-stress 
    2. Aked J, Marks N, Cordon C, Thompson S. Five ways to wellbeing: communicating the evidence. New Economics Foundation. Accessed February 2021. https://neweconomics.org/uploads/files/five-ways-to-wellbeing-1.pdf
    3. Ferreri L, Mas-Herrero E, Zatorre RJ et al. Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2019;116(9):3793-3798. doi:10.1073/pnas.1811878116
    4. Wuttke-Linnemann A, Nater UM, Ehlert U et al. Sex-specific effects of music listening on couples’ stress in everyday life. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):4880. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-40056-0
    5. Koelsch S, Boehlig A, Hohenadel M et al. The impact of acute stress on hormones and cytokines and how their recovery is affected by music-evoked positive mood. Sci Rep. 2019;6:23008. doi:10.1038/srep23008
    6. Baik JH. Stress and the dopaminergic reward system. Exp Mol Med. 2020;52(12):1879-1890. doi:10.1038/s12276-020-00532-4
    7. Niemiec RM. 10 new strategies for stress management. Psychology Today website. Published January 19, 2017. Accessed February 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-matters-most/201701/10-new-strategies-stress-management
    8. Foster JA, Rinaman L, Cryan JF. Stress & the gut–brain axis: regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiol Stress. 2017;7:124-136. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2017.03.001
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